Let no one say we didn’t see it coming. Half a million people are now accustomed to using food banks, and according to a report by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, the UK is now facing “destitution, hardship and hunger on a large scale”. Whether this news will achieve the impact it deserves is currently unclear: it doesn’t quite feel like it, which only underlines how inured the media seems to have become to rising poverty, and how easily the government seems to be getting off the hook. Yet the facts are obvious enough: “Food aid” is something firmly built into our national life, the supposed safety net of social security is getting more threadbare by the month – and the question demands to be asked, not for reasons of melodrama, but hard political fact: what kind of country is Britain becoming?
According the Trussell Trust, the UK’s single biggest organiser of food banks, in 2011-12, the number of people who received at least three days’ emergency food was around 130,000. Their own informational material says that in 2012-13, “food banks fed 346,992 people nationwide”, and of those who received help, “126,889 were children”. Now comes this latest report, and the skyrocketing numbers speak for themselves – as does the mess of factors behind them, and the responsibility of the coalition for pushing up the demand – no, need – for food banks so drastically. While we’re here, it may also be worth cutting through the kind of officialspeak used to deal with such things: even the term “food bank” occasionally seems designed to obscure what’s actually afoot, which is simple enough. So, let’s not mess about: a skyrocketing number of people simply cannot afford to eat, and they have been put in that predicament thanks to deliberate government policy.
We are now starting to see the consequences of George Osborne’s move on so-called “welfare uprating”, whereby increases in benefits are to be held at 1%, irrespective of inflation (over the last five years, incidentally, the cost of basic foods has risen by 35%). Changes to disability benefits are set to cut the income of about 600,000 people. A new council tax benefit regime has snatched money from vulnerable people’s pockets, and the infamous bedroom tax has done its work. In all these cases, the people affected are hit by a straightforward enough problem. If your income comes down, your fixed costs – rent, most utility bills, the cost of a phone, or running a car – stay exactly where they are, and two budgets tend to be cut back.
The first is heating. The second, always, is food. By way of highlighting that straightforward fact, I’ll quote from a mother of four I met earlier this year, in Hartlepool, who was facing a cut of at least £16 – and as much as £28 – a week in her family’s housing benefit: “We can’t cut it from fuel, or electricity, or petrol. So when you lay that budget out over a month, with your council tax and water, and all your bills, there’s nowhere else it can come from: the only place we can cut from is our food budget. And we’re already having the cheapest food you can buy.”
There is another factor in all this, which does not get nearly enough coverage, and which plays a huge role in the rising need for food banks. For some time, it has become increasingly clear that rising numbers of people who need social securityare being “sanctioned”: having their benefits suddenly cut, or taken away altogether, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Whistleblowers working in job centres have spoken of a “culture change” and the imposition of targets for the numbers of people to be sanctioned, irrespective of the details of their cases. Again, a quote from a cob centre staffer on the frontline speaks volumes: “Most staff go in to work and they’re thinking about it from moment one – who am I going to stop [ie sanction] this week?” Note also that job centre staff are now referring people to food banks, as are councils and housing associations.
At the same time, one other chronically overlooked issue further drives people’s need for emergency food. A couple of months ago, I spoke to a senior manager at a food bank, who talked at length about modern labour markets, and how the rising number of temporary and insecure jobs – witness the rise of the infamous “zero hours” contract – tends to put people who need emergency food in a grim loop. In, say, January, they may turn up in dire need, take their parcel and go away. Weeks later, they’ll apparently find work. But by March or April they’ll be back – freshly laid off, hit by a delay in their benefit payments and hungry.
“The explosion in food poverty and the use of food banks is a national disgrace,” says this latest report. It is. So too is the spectacle of silver-spooned politicians taking refuge in the language of “scroungers” and “welfare crackdowns”; and, for that matter, ministers demanding further cuts to social security so as to shore up defence spending. Enough, too, of those caricatured claims that hacking away at the benefits system will involve the sacrifice of nothing more than fags and flat-screen TVs, and the idea that hunger is something that happens only to the poor and unfortunate overseas. It’s now here: outside everyone’s door, gnawing away, ruining lives. Oh, and one other thing: research from the US suggests that the very “food uncertainty” the food bank phenomenon embodies may be a particularly insidious part of the obesity crisis – something you won’t hear from any minister, but worth pointing out.
We are at a fork in the road here. One way lies a collective recognition that British society has tumbled somewhere hitherto unimaginable, and it is time to renew our social contract; in the other direction there lie outcomes that, at this rate, may sooner or later explode into social disorder. By all means let’s start a conversation about the billions of pounds in housing benefit payments thrown at private landlords, the abject waste of money that is the work programme, and more. But enough of the relentless hacking-back of money used for people’s most basic needs. As even the most knuckle-headed members of this wretched government now know, that way lies a world many of us thought we had left behind many, many decades ago.